When I first meet Brandon Maxwell at the Top of The Standard, he's in hair and makeup answering a round of true and false questions from his team who are fact checking stories about his life while they wait for him to finish in the makeup chair. It's a fitting location for a shoot given he shot his very first fashion campaign in 2015 near the sofas we made our way toward to sit and chat.
He's handsome, but laments turning 34, juggling a never-ending schedule and shoot dates for Project Runway, where he plays judge alongside Christian Siriano, Nina Garcia and former Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth. In between conversation he laughs, disarms with humor. "Can you make me look plastic in the photos?" he queries. "How plastic are we talking?" I reply with a smile. "I want to look like a Barbie doll." His team giggles behind him.
Maxwell is a rare designer, who takes fashion, but not himself seriously. It's an endearing quality in an industry full of expectation, seemingly unattainable beauty standards and a high barometer for perfection. "I think the fashion world is so misunderstood though," he tells me when I prod him on the subject. "I just wish people could see the kindness that comes from everyone. They're all creative people with a dream too."
A dream not dissimilar to his own when he first became a stylist and, later, a designer, offering women who wear his garments a bit of modern glamour in the same way that Oscar de la Renta did before him.
You've had quite a year already, but I imagine your win at the CFDA Fashion Awards might be one of your biggest accomplishments yet. What did it mean for you to win Womenswear Designer of the Year?
BRANDON MAXWELL: It really means everything to me. First of all, even to be invited to a gathering like that was shocking for many, many months after the nomination came out. And so, I felt overjoyed just to be in their company. But it's just recently happened and I haven't really had enough time for it to sink in.
I'm just grateful for all the people who voted for us and who have supported us. I will probably spend the better part of my life figuring out how to say thank you for that. My office is filled with people just trying to figure out how to make the dream happen.
And it was a surprise because you had felt like an outsider?
BM: I feel like I always have and still do, sit outside of the fashion system. Imagine being in a category with someone like Marc Jacobs—whom I love and adore and think is the most genius designer—it would boggle your mind.
I'm not a person who naturally walks in the room and feels like I belong there. I didn't grow up in a world like that. Instead of leaning into that, I tend to throw myself back into my work.
But here you are, having dressed Oprah, Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga. These are people who truly have an impact on what's going to be successful or not. Do you see the power you've had to redirect what people in fashion are talking about?
BM: Whether it's the Met Gala or another red carpet engagement, we always try to align ourselves with the morals and values of the women that we're dressing. And when you're putting time, energy and resources into dressing people publicly, you want to make sure you're really on the right page. What has been so inspiring to me is that we've been able to dress women who primarily have been focused on making the world a better place. Their beauty is not just translated by their hair, skin, face, body—but they have an inner beauty.
I think my relationship with Gaga, who I've known for so many years, has shown me that she's just as beautiful inside as she is talented. She's really a part of a handful of girlfriends in my life that have been there for me. I wouldn't have this job without them. I wouldn't really have this life without them.
Be honest with me... when you initially saw her famous meat dress, what was your impression?
BM: The meat dress was designed by Franc Fernandez and I remember seeing it when I was working as Nicola Formichetti's assistant at the time. And it was really a social statement, much like many of the things that she does.
I think that it was not really about the garment as much as it was about what she had to say in it. I mean, I don't think I would see anything like it on Project Runway, because she's the only person in the world that could do that, you know? We won't see anything like that ever again, I'm pretty sure.
Which reminds me that you were once a stylist before transitioning over to being a designer. Was that a difficult jump?
BM: When I have stylists in my office now, it's a very collaborative experience. We're sitting down and talking about what the client is looking for and how we can best give them that.
And so, I felt like I was doing that for so long. My story isn't very different than anybody else's. I look back now and realize how naive I was at the time. I told someone I was doing a collection and they printed it. Then I had to hire people, two friends, and we came up with a collection, did a little show and we were off to the races. That is not everyone's experience. There were a lot of failures. But I never really sat down and said, "Okay, now I'm doing this." As with everything in my life, I was still evolving. It's like, "Okay, let's make some dresses. Let's see how this goes. Let's see if anybody wants to wear them." And four years later, you have a full-blown business.
So you let the universe guide you?
BM: Yes, and no. I mean, I'm a Virgo. So, I'm not someone who's letting the world guide me. I'm definitely driving the car, I've got the map, I'm telling everyone where we're going. I'm like this, this and this need to happen now. But how can you plan for the future? There are moments that have been pretty revealing about myself and have been hard to struggle through, but what's happened has been pretty incredible. And I do wake up every morning and look myself in the mirror and think of all the people that have helped me on the trajectory I've had.
I know it seems like things happened really fast for me, but it was backed by 10, 12 years of working as a stylist, cultivating relationships in fashion, preparing for the life I have now. And the biggest lesson for me in all that was that it doesn't happen when you want it to. I think every time that I have really wanted something super badly, it never happens. Some of my darkest periods, personally in my life, have been when I've had major public successes. And in those times, I think that you have to figure out how you're going to meet that moment and be the best version of yourself.
And now, as someone affecting change in the fashion industry, what do you see as your role?
BM: I'm asking myself what's next, what does this project mean and why does this thing matter? I've been selflessly given so much by so many people in my life, so I'm always asking myself, how do I make the most of that? What do I do next? How do I clear a place for other people who want this opportunity and don't have the access, who don't know the right people?
It's not enough just to live in the fashion of it all. You have to think about the bigger picture, because as they say, "One day you're in, and the next day you're out."
Photography by Nicholas Needham; Grooming by Jess Ortiz, Forward Artists